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Into the Future

Paul Wachter reports how Holy Trinity College is preparing a new generation of priests

by Paul Wachter

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Last February, invited guests joined a number of priests and seminarians at Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Theological College in Addis Ababa.

Over the din of traffic and street peddlers, Abune Timotheos, the rector of the college, laid the cornerstone of what promises to be a large modern facility that will replace the forlorn and, in many cases, ad hoc buildings that now speckle the small campus. Indeed, as rendered in the conceptual sketch that was displayed that day, the new building will distinguish itself not only from the present structures but also from every other building in the neighborhood of Arat Kilo, a collection of dusty and worn 1950’s-era constructions.

“This building is for all Orthodox and all Christians,” Abune Timotheos said to enthusiastic applause. Later, back in his office, the archbishop’s enthusiasm was undiminished even though he admitted, “We don’t have one cent for this building.”

Abune Timotheos’s confidence stems from his long experience as a leader in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which includes about half of the country’s 77 million people. The church has rebounded from Communist-era repression (1974-1991) and is now looking to modernize, Abune Timotheos said.

Abune Timotheos was born Habtselassie Tesfa in 1938 in Tigray, a province north of Addis Ababa. At 12, he left home to begin his religious studies in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, once the country’s capital.

“At the time there were no modern schools in the area, except for maybe one private Protestant school,” Abune Timotheos said. His religious education was traditional, a rite passed down through the centuries.

“We studied songs, Scripture and poetry in Ge’ez, the liturgical language.” This basic education, acquired during residencies at several monasteries, lasted 15 years, after which Abune Timotheos went to Addis Ababa, to Holy Trinity and then to Harare. During the course of his studies, he learned Amharic, the nation’s working language, and also focused on religious poetry.

His education took an unorthodox turn in 1965, when he went to the Russian city of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) as a student at St. Petersburg Theology Academy. By then, the Russians had already turned away from the staunch atheism enforced by Stalin, Abune Timotheos said. “People were still going to church, and there was a real demand for religion.”

“If you went to a bookstore, all the books about God were priced higher ... that was what people were buying.”

His teachers invited him to remain in St. Petersburg after he finished his dissertation, but Timotheos was ready to return to his homeland. He arrived there in 1974 at a time when the country was beginning its own Communist era under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, who overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. Mengistu repressed the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, arresting and later executing its patriarch, Abune Tewophilos.

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